Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Short Primer on Hymn Playing

Hymn playing is considered by many to be one of the most necessary skills for the church organist. Yet, as I pop in to parish after parish, it becomes apparent that many organists have not been properly trained in this art. Like every other musical subject, there is a great diversity of opinion on this. It goes without saying that my own opinion will color what I have to say here; nevertheless, I hope that this piece proves helpful to those who might be looking for fundamental advice on hymn playing.

So without further delay, here are some areas on which an improving organist should concentrate:

1. Preparation

As with all music, it helps to break a hymn apart when beginning the learning process. Separate the hands and the feet. Learn the right hand, then the left, then the pedal alone. Then combine the left hand with the pedal. (When I was a beginner I found this to be the most crucial step.) Then combine the right hand with the pedal. After you've done all that, put everything together at a slow tempo.

2. Articulation

It is important in the process of preparation to incorporate the articulation that is going to be used. The various voices will not always receive the same articulation at the same time. For instance, repeated notes in the lower voices are most often tied together. Not so for the melody, however, in which repeated notes should each be re-articulated. An alternative method to use, when applicable, is to repeat not only the melodic notes but also the notes in the tenor, while tying the alto and bass notes.

Another aspect of articulation is the treatment of the ends and beginnings of phrases. One can of course lift all voices, but often this has an undesirable, abrupt sound even in some lively acoustic spaces. Often a more becoming result is gotten from lifting only the soprano and tenor voices, or even lifting only the soprano voice. Other combinations are possible, too. Experiment to see what works with the available instrument in the acoustical space.

3. Phrasing

This is a real flash point for many when it comes to the singing of hymns. I've worked with singers who insist on breathing at every comma. I suppose we need only ask the question: Do we breathe, pause, hiccup at every comma when we speak? Generally it seems to me to be a good idea to breathe in large phrases. It usually works to follow the musical phraseology, though there will be occasional exceptions. One important question to ask if you're tempted to do some kind of unusual phrasing is: Will the congregation ever figure out what I'm trying to do?

One way mid-phrase commas might sometimes be treated is with a slight lift, perhaps lifting only the soprano.

4. Tempo

It is important when playing hymns to establish a firm tempo. It's also important not to be martial about it. Listen to the way people sing when they sing spontaneously. Yes, they drag, and the pitch sags, but besides that, listen to how they treat ends and beginnings of phrases. Take this into account in your playing. The organ is not a metronome. This does not mean that you let the congregation direct you. Just keep in mind that it's okay to push and pull the tempo a bit in an organic fashion.

The selection of overall tempo depends on many things. More live acoustics often demand somewhat broader tempi. The style in which the organ is built might suggest one tempo as being more appropriate than another. A thinner musical texture will allow for quicker tempi; a thicker one, particularly one with many chord changes (fast harmonic rhythm), will require a broader tempo. Finally, factors such as weather and the age of the congregation have a role to play in all this as well. Dreary weather, or a dropping barometer in general, may require quicker tempi, as will an older congregation, which does not have the lung capacity of a younger congregation. Smaller congregations tend to do better with quicker tempi, as well.

5. Registration

When registering the organ for hymn playing, it is important to remember that the organ, if it is used for hymn singing, leads the hymn singing. It does not accompany the congregation or the cantor. It leads them all. Consequently, whatever registration is used must be sufficient for this task. (Most Catholic organists are too timid when it comes to this.) Generally this will include foundation stops (8' principals, flutes, and strings that are not celestes) and at least some upper work (4', 2', mixtures) on at least one manual coupled to the pedal. There are very few organs whose scaling allows for the omission of upper work on hymn playing.

Sometimes it will be necessary or desirable to solo out the melody on a separate manual. Any number of possibilities come into play here. One to keep in mind is the use of the separable cornet (8' principal or flute, 4' principal or flute, 2 2/3', 2', 1 3/5') for the melody. If you're lucky enough to have one of those wonderful Romantic organs with a singing 8' Diapason, these often work well as solo stops.

Experiment to see what works on your instrument. Just avoid one thing: NEVER, never, never use the celestes or tremolos. Tremolos create a vibrato effect on the organ, and celeste stops are deliberately tuned slightly sharp to created a similar undulating effect in the sound. These are not conducive to finding/keeping the pitch. It's also inconsistent with the needed texture for hymns.

6. Introductions

Again, there are a number of possible approaches. For hymns that are not familiar, one might wish to play a whole verse as an introduction. It's also okay to do it this way just because you want to. For more familiar hymns, the first line might suffice, or the first and last lines together. On some longer tunes, such as Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern, it might be best to play straight through the verse but to skip over the repeated material. This allows for a thorough introduction that is not at the same time unduly long.

Be sure that the tempo in the introduction is the same as the tempo at which you intend to sing. Once you start, there's no turning back. Also, avoid what American football fans might call the "no-huddle" introduction: banging on five or six notes then plowing into the piece. Omitting the introduction would be better than that.

7. Remember: This is music

Keep in mind that when we're singing hymns, we're singing music. These are not pedal exercises in the Ritchie-Stauffer organ technique book. So don't be afraid to play beautifully. Learning the proper technique is important, but when that has been done, don't forget to ask yourself, "What will make this hymn beautiful?"

It's also important to note that, while culturally expected in many places, the organ is not necessary for hymn singing. There is plenty to justify the existence of the organ in the church besides hymns. Sometime, you may wish to try a hymn, or at least one verse, without the organ. The results may surprise you.

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